Inspired by their love of animals and passion for Aggieland, Linda and Dennis Clark have pledged a $20 million lead gift through the Texas A&M Foundation to support construction of a new Next-Generation Small Animal Teaching & Research Hospital at Texas A&M University.
The cutting-edge facility will replace the current Small Animal Teaching Hospital and enable students, faculty and staff in the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences to further elevate its already world-renowned veterinary medicine program.
The couple hopes their gift will challenge and inspire others to support the construction project, which still requires a significant investment from private donors to reach fruition.
“The Clarks’ generosity is inspiring, and their lead gift will be truly transformational,” said Dr. M. Katherine Banks, Texas A&M University president. “This new hospital will provide hands-on educational workspaces for veterinary students and state-of-the-art laboratories for animal health and translational research, enabling our researchers, faculty and outstanding students to continue their work and provide the best animal care in the world.”
For the Clarks, the gift culminated from Linda and Dennis’ pride in Texas A&M, the couple’s passion for animals, the transformative experiences with animal care and research they have witnessed at the veterinary school, and the opportunity of a lifetime to provide future generations of Aggies with the resources to revolutionize their field.
While it was considered advanced and spacious when it opened in 1981, the current Small Animal Teaching Hospital has struggled to accommodate its ever-growing occupancy spurred by booming demand for veterinary medicine practitioners and a rise in caseloads. Increasingly complex procedures requiring more sophisticated equipment, training and staff have also pushed the hospital to its limits, making for crowded workspaces. Since its opening, the number of services the hospital offers has expanded from two to 19, while the annual caseload has increased from around 3,000 per year in 1981 to approximately 23,000 today.
Still, thanks to its talented students, faculty and staff, the school has established itself among the best in the country, ranking fourth in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report. As a specialty care center and referral hospital, the teaching hospital’s clinicians have seen patients from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico since 2010.
Dr. John August, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine, looks forward to the new facility’s ability to better facilitate outstanding educational experiences, exceptional patient care that supports the human-animal bond, and clinical trials that bring scientists together from across Texas A&M and around the world to solve medical mysteries that benefit both animals and human beings.
“Our primary goal is to provide exemplary companion animal primary care education for our veterinary students,” he said. “At the same time, we aspire to become a research-intensive tertiary-care center that is recognized as the best in the world, a place people come to because it is cutting-edge and because of the high level of compassionate care. The Clarks understand that’s the role Texas A&M should have in the care of companion animals, and we are so grateful for their generosity.”
The new, next-generation teaching hospital will match the abilities of the passionate faculty and staff within its walls by radically expanding in size, updating technological features, devoting space to house future advanced research equipment and offering welcoming spaces for its clientele. In addition to private dollars, the project has received funding from the Texas Legislature and Texas’ Permanent University Fund.
“Updating this facility has been a university goal for some time,” said Tyson Voelkel , president and CEO of the Texas A&M Foundation. “But it needed investment from outstanding former students and philanthropic partners like the Clarks, who were willing to make this monumental gift and build a brighter future for the university. They have seen what this school and its people are capable of, and they know that Aggies will fully utilize this new teaching hospital to push their field forward.”
Dennis graduated from Texas A&M in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a master’s in management from the university in 1971. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets and was commissioned into the U.S. Army. After his active duty, he began a career in the restaurant industry, during which he met Linda. In 1986, the couple founded Encore Restaurants, eventually becoming franchise owners of 39 Sonic Drive-In locations throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. During this same period, they also developed a successful commercial real estate development business focusing on restaurant, retail and office projects.
“Coming to Texas A&M was a watershed event in my life,” Dennis said. “It taught me about personal discipline, leadership and taking pride in what I did. My experience in the Corps of Cadets was life-changing, and many of the relationships I made during that time continue today. Linda and I are deeply involved in this university’s academic and athletic programs because Texas A&M is part of who we are.”
Before their gift to support the new teaching hospital, the Clarks generously contributed to the 2015 Kyle Field Redevelopment campaign, named the Football Performance Nutrition addition to the Davis Player Development Center and created two endowed faculty chairs in the veterinary school.
In 2013, Sonic presented the couple with the Troy Smith Award, the company’s most prestigious accolade for franchisee owners. The Clarks have since sold all but three of their franchise locations, but Dennis says they have no retirement plans for now. “I enjoy the relationships and challenges that come with being involved in our business,” he said. “I just can’t imagine not having something to do every day.”
“Animals have always been an integral part of our lives,” Linda said. “We consider ours to be part of our family.” At their ranch in Argyle, Texas, the couple owns four dogs (having owned as many as eight at a time), 43 horses and a cat. “Linda has tolerated the large number of bird dogs that live in the house with us—they’re family. And I’ve tolerated her cats, so it’s always been a cooperative environment,” Dennis joked.
“This university has an extraordinary veterinary school with talented people doing exciting research that will not only improve animal care but may also impact humans down the road.”
As longtime clients of the veterinary school, the couple has experienced Texas A&M veterinarians’ outstanding quality of care firsthand. Two of their dogs, Labrador retrievers Molly and Cadbury, underwent tibial plateau leveling osteotomy surgery—canine knee replacements—at the current Small Animal Teaching Hospital. The surgeon, Dr. Brian Saunders ’98 ’01 ’05, holds one of the two faculty chairs the Clarks endowed through the school.
“We’ve just been so impressed by Dr. Saunders and the rest of the faculty we’ve interacted with,” Dennis said. “He told us about some of his work on the regeneration of bone tissue through stem cells and his collaboration with bioengineering researchers at Texas A&M, and it was just amazing.” Their conversations with Saunders also highlighted the need for a new facility, as it became apparent the researcher’s team could do even more with an updated space.
“This university has an extraordinary veterinary school with talented people doing exciting research that will not only improve animal care but may also impact humans down the road,” Linda said. “This gift was a big decision for us, and it ultimately came from us asking ourselves, ‘How can we facilitate what’s going on and help make it be the best it can be?’”
Two of the Clarks’ Labrador retrievers, Molly (right) and Cadbury (left), received canine knee replacements at the current Small Animal Teaching Hospital. Photo by Tonya Schabacker.
Beyond the tangible benefit of providing a massive overhaul to the veterinary school’s facilities, the couple sees their gift as a continuation of the university’s heritage. “Agriculture has always been an important part of Texas A&M’s origins as a land-grant college,” Dennis explained. “Our veterinary school plays a great role in agriculture through caring for animals and maintaining the state’s livestock industry.”
The state will need Texas A&M’s leadership more and more as its human and animal populations grow in the coming decades. And with 70% of U.S. households owning at least one companion animal, the demand for veterinary care isn’t going away anytime soon. Now more than ever, the state, nation and world need clinicians and researchers who can care for animals, educate future practitioners, and seek solutions to lingering medical mysteries affecting humans and their furry companions alike. Thanks to the Clarks, those veterinary innovators will soon have a fitting home in Aggieland.